On October 29, 2014, a 21-year-old Victor Rask was eight games into his rookie season in the NHL. He had zero points and his team was 0-6-2, fresh off of a loss that marked the merciful end to a devastating, winless opening month of the 2014-15 season, a monumental disaster that made their goal of breaking a five-year playoff drought unfathomable.
20 months later, following a 21-goal, 48-point sophomore season, he put pen to paper on a contract extension that guaranteed him $24 million and six years of job security, making him an integral cornerstone of a team viewed as having massive upside and an undeniably bright future.
16 months later, his coaches, now looking to avoid the team’s looming nine-year playoff drought, determined that the team would be better with him watching the game instead of playing in it and he was removed from the lineup ahead of a must-win game.
That was nine days ago.
Where are we today? Well, Victor Rask had a two-point game yesterday, earning first star honors and acting as a key cog in the machine that defeated one of the league’s best teams. After two consecutive losses, that, too, was a must-win hockey game for his Carolina Hurricanes.
You could say a lot of things about Rask’s young NHL career, but you can’t say it has been uneventful.
You could also say a lot of things about Rask’s play over the past ten months, in which case “uneventful” would be a tragically appropriate descriptor.
He hasn’t always been that way, though... at least not with regards to his production. An expectation-exceeding start to his 2016-17 campaign erased any lingering doubts surrounding his substantial payday during the preceding offseason.
At the 42-game mark, Rask had 32 points, and while the Hurricanes were on the outside looking in at a playoff spot, it was difficult to place any of the blame on the third-year center as he had formed a dangerous duo with Jeff Skinner, who was on pace to eclipse the 30-goal mark for the third time in his career.
Skinner kept pace and even improved late in the season. Rask did not.
The combination that gave the Hurricanes a legitimate chance of competing every night fell apart, seemingly out of nowhere. The duo followed up a five-game stretch in which they combined for 14 points with a goose egg in the next six.
From there on, the Rask-Skinner connection faded away and the Ryan-Skinner connection formed in its place. Skinner then went on a rampant scoring tear through the end of the year, capping it off with 14 goals in 14 games. Rask, meanwhile, experienced the worst extended scoring slump of his career as he tallied just 13 total points in his final 40 games of the season and endured a dreadful 14-game point drought from January 14 to February 21.
In the second week of April, the Hurricanes were watching the first round of the playoffs on their televisions for the eighth straight season. Coupled with a truly incompetent goalie tandem, offensive consistency failed Carolina as they finished with the league’s 20th-ranked offense despite Skinner finishing sixth on the NHL goal-scoring shortlist.
It’s tough to be a good hockey team in the NHL, and losing a top-six centerman halfway through the season can make it damn-near impossible, especially when you don’t have guys in line who are ready to fill in and do so competently.
The Hurricanes lost a top-six centerman at the halfway point a season ago. Though, it wasn’t due to an injury or a trade. It was due to an unforeseen vanishing act from Victor Rask, Carolina’s newly appointed third-highest paid forward.
A 40-game stretch of disappointing hockey, while never dismissable for a player with Rask’s talent and cap hit, was not bad enough to totally write him off entering a new season, at least not according to the coaching staff.
From every indication we were given, that second-half slump in ‘16-17 wasn’t going to rear its ugly head again in ‘17-18. Canes’ bench boss Bill Peters said that their end-of-season individual meeting went well and that Rask was ready to work hard and have a bounce-back season as a fourth-year NHLer.
Weeks later, in poetic fashion, he was tremendous in the World Championships, helping his native Sweden win a gold medal, thus legitimizing much of what Peters said in April. He finished with seven points in ten tournament games, good for second on the team.
In those two gifs, you see Rask do things that he hasn’t done in a Hurricanes sweater in a long time - he holds onto the puck, drives to the middle of the ice, and fires the puck on net with authority. One play results in a rebound goal for Gabriel Landeskog and the other nearly ripped a hole right through the twine in the top-left corner of the net.
Maybe it was the larger ice surface, or the setting, or his teammates, or any number of factors that could have worked its way into his game, but this was not the player that was wearing red and black just a month and a half earlier.
Ultimately, the reasons for his success were irrelevant as long as Rask’s uptick in production and rediscovered confidence during the international tournament could carry over to the North American ice surface.
The early results were promising.
On opening night, Carolina’s #49 came through during a huge stage in the game, ripping a one-timer home to give his team a late third-period lead.
A good opening night was just that, though, a good opening night.
In the 17 games thereafter, the optimism surrounding Rask quickly evaporated as it became wholly apparent that last season’s issues never truly went away. He, again, was a shell of the player that earned a long-term contract and looked like a long-term staple in the top-six and on the powerplay.
The young top-six center signed to a bargain of a long-term contract turned into a player who seemingly did not care about the outcome of any given hockey game he played in, straying away from good hockey habits and instead staying at the perimeter of the offensive zone, not hustling on the backcheck, playing half-hearted defense, getting into scoring areas on rare occasion, and wasting those rare opportunities with a lack creativity, consistently flicking the puck directly into the goalie’s chest.
Throughout the process, the Hurricanes’ coaching staff was patient, either trusting that Rask would magically correct the months of poor play and absence of effort on his own or perhaps realizing that they had no other option but to keep him in the lineup. Then, following a narrow win in Buffalo wherein Rask saw 11:50 of ice time, his lowest number in two years, the staff’s reasoning to stick with him for so long became irrelevant, and their patience had worn too thin.
Victor Rask had finally reached rock-bottom and the coach decided to send his message.
Just two hours prior to Carolina’s November 19 matchup against the Islanders, Bill Peters was asked what would need to happen in order to get his Swedish center going.
“We're going to look at it some more and try and find a solution to that problem that we have,” Peters said. “If we can do that, we'll become a much more balanced team and a much more dangerous team.”
The solution was to get him off of the ice.
With the struggling center sitting in the press box, the Hurricanes won a game they desperately needed to win in order to keep pace in the Metropolitan Division.
A couple of nights later, the Canes followed up that big win with a blowout loss to a Rangers team with which they were neck-and-neck in the division standings. The stunning loss sent Bill Peters back to the drawing board and spelled the return of Victor Rask.
Instead of starting Rask in a small role and going from there, Peters threw him right back into the mix in the top-nine. He started out centering a line with Brock McGinn and Elias Lindholm on the wings at even strength and was back on the second powerplay unit.
I don’t think you ever really know how a player will respond to getting sat out for any stretch of time due to their performance. Each player responds in a different way - sitting out could make them angry, inspired, motivated, or determined to prove their doubters wrong. It could also crush any confidence that they had left.
It was anyone’s guess as to what category Rask would fall into. It was a risky move by Peters, but he was seemingly out of options and had to make a statement of some kind. This wasn’t an X’s and O’s problem. His prolonged stay in the realm of mediocrity wasn’t a result of a bad corsi share or a little bit of bad luck. It was a between the ears problem through-and-through.
The wrench that was thrown into this particular situation is how long these issues have lingered, the increasingly decreased level of interest from the player, and the importance of his production as a top-six forward.
For those reasons, all eyes were on Rask from the getgo, and everyone watching him would be in for a show.
In his first period of game action in six days, he was often the Hurricanes’ most noticeable player with regards to his intensity level and the quality scoring opportunities he was involved in.
An early powerplay gave the Canes a chance to be in a very advantageous position, and Rask was on the ice to take the offensive zone faceoff.
He won the faceoff, hustled to a puck in the corner to break up the clearing attempt, and created room for Jeff Skinner to move the puck low to high.
From there, the Hurricanes set up in their powerplay formation. Rask camped himself out in front of the net, controlling that area in the low slot as the perimeter players of the Hurricanes’ umbrella formation rotated and moved the puck up top.
Noah Hanifin made a great read and used his top-tier skating ability to move in down the left wing, curled around and found Rask all alone in front.
Andersen comes up with a big save, but Rask looks engaged in this play from start to finish.
As Hanifin slides up, Rask backs up to the tops of the circles. When he sees Hanifin create space and the potential for a passing lane to open, he goes right back to the top of the crease, creating separation from his man and finding a soft spot in the d-zone coverage. It would’ve been great for him to get a goal there, but these are big steps forward for the Swede.
Late in the first frame, Rask got yet another grade-A chance. This time, Frederick Andersen made the save of the game.
This is great puck movement from Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, per usual, but Rask isn’t a bystander in this play. He is reading his teammates and playing off of them, sagging to his offside, making room for himself, and putting himself in an ideal one-time position.
Again, this would have been a big goal had he been able to finish, but the fact that he is putting himself in these positions to score is already a huge step in the right direction for him.
The Toronto game was about laying the groundwork. Rask showed effort, smarts, and executed at a level that he hadn’t been within shouting distance of all season.
As I said earlier with regards to his strong opening night performance, a good game is only that, a good game. He needs to make high effort plays, good reads, and consistent execution of plays a habit that he carries in and out of every game.
He took another step in the right direction against the Nashville Predators on Sunday.
The matinee was huge for the Hurricanes. They had lost two straight and were in danger of putting themselves behind the eight-ball on the heels of a long month of December with ten of 15 games coming on the road.
One week after being held out of a must-win game, he not only played in a must-win game, he was a difference maker. In the second period, down 2-1 to a dominant Western Conference club, of course, it was Rask who tied things up.
Brock McGinn works the puck low to high, Noah Hanifin wasted no time getting the puck on net, and Victor Rask hammered home the rebound, a huge goal in the second half of the middle frame.
He also pitched in with a secondary assist on Justin Williams’ third-period tally and the Hurricanes would go on to win in shootout.
After countless months of wondering if Rask would get back to the level he is capable of playing at, he played at that level and was a standout performer in each of Carolina’s weekend games.
He had his chances, and while he didn’t convert on all of them, the fact that he is getting himself into dangerous scoring areas on a regular basis is a consolation prize that the team will gladly accept. After watching him play the way he has for the better part of the past year, baby steps are fine, as long as the improvement is there and the compete level is visible, which it undoubtedly was against Toronto and Nashville.
Bottom line, Victor Rask can’t be a pedestrian. He is far too talented to stand around the perimeter of the offensive zone and not put forth the effort necessary to make a big play or score a timely goal, and he should be far too competitive to lollygag on the backcheck as his opponents rush down the ice for scoring opportunities.
He is a highly skilled center with a great shot, a big frame, remarkable vision, a skill set that rivals most top-six centers in the league and, when he wants to, he can influence the outcome of a hockey game in a variety of ways.
Maybe these past two games are just that - two games. Perhaps the fight in his game will regress back down to the embarrassing level it had been at and this long-term contract will haunt Ron Francis for the next five years.
Or, maybe not.
If what we saw over the weekend was a sign of things to come and his effort level can resemble that of a proud, confident NHL player on a nightly basis, then getting healthy scratched may have been the wake-up call that Rask needed. If that’s the case, we are about to see a very different player, one who is dialed in, competitive, and really damn good at hockey - the very same player that vanished ten months ago.